A Collection Remembered
Before Hurricane Katrina 2005 (we call it The Storm in New Orleans), I relished collecting manuscripts, books, and magazines. The historian/poet Julius E. Thompson and I joked about our passion for books, congratulating ourselves that between us we had at least 80% of the African American poetry broadsides, chapbook, volumes and anthologies published since 1960. We were assiduous in buying the output of Broadside, Third World, and Lotus Presses; in having complete collections of Negro Digest/Black World, OBSIDIAN, Sagala, American Rag, First World, Callaloo, Hoo-Doo, Drumvoices Revue, Umbra, The Black Scholar; in treasuring our autographed books by Margaret Walker, Richard A. Long, Haki Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Mari Evans, Sterling A. Brown, Sonia Sanchez, Kalamu ya Salaam, Tom Dent, Kiarri T-H. Cheatwood, Sterling D. Plumpp, Lance Jeffers, Harryette Mullen, Audre Lorde, Jay Wright, Michael Harper, Julia Fields, Carolyn Rodgers, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Etheridge Knight, and such Mississippi writers as L. C. Dorsey, C. Liegh McInnis, Theodore Bozeman, Charlie Braxton, David Brian Williams, and Otis Williams. I tried to buy all the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker published as well as all the recordings of Cassandra Wilson, Isaac Hayes, and Esther Phillips. Julius bought hundreds of books on African American and Southern history. And the two of us were kids in the candy factory with regard to all the reprints of black materials during the 1970s.
Collecting was more than a simple matter of acquisition. It had practical uses. Having an extensive collection at hand made it easier to co-edit Black Southern Voices with John Oliver Killens and to compile Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry, to write literary criticism, and to share insights about black literature and culture with my students at Tougaloo College and Dillard University. Julius used his collection to write important books on Dudley Randall and Broadside Press, lynching in Mississippi, and black newspapers. There was also an irrational, special idiosyncrasy in my collecting. The physical objects allowed me to be in constant touch with the writers I got to know personally over the years; touching was a way of refreshing very pleasant memories.
The flooding after Katrina killed my passion for collecting. Losing relatives and friends is a thousand times more important than losing books and papers. I still buy books, of course, but I no longer collect them. I leave collecting to colleges and universities and other institutions which are more able than I to prevent loss of items we want to transmit to a future. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of print books in the 21st century far exceeds the modest book-buying budget my Social Security income permits
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
August 12, 2014